ALMOST EXACTLY one year ago, President Bush was reelected with more votes than had ever been cast for a presidential candidate, breaking Ronald Reagan's 1984 record. Not only did Bush sweep to victory by a three million vote margin, the Republicans increased their majorities in both the House and the Senate, the first time this trifecta had been accomplished since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964.
Since that triumphant moment, the conventional wisdom is that nothing has gone right for the Republicans. But what, exactly, has happened to cause such a reversal in the party's fortunes? Has the economy collapsed? Not at all. It is humming along as strongly as ever, putting ever more distance between America's prosperity and that of Europe and Japan. Have the terrorists attacked the American homeland, exposing a weakness in our domestic security? No. Astonishingly, we have now gone more than four years without a successful attack on American soil, even though newspaper headlines reveal, on an almost daily basis, the bloodthirstiness of our enemies. Have there been setbacks in foreign policy that could explain how a party that was triumphant just 12 months ago should now be in full retreat? No. We continue to make progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On a number of fronts, liberty has taken root in the vital Middle East. And no foreign power even imagines that it could rival the United States in influence.
While there has been no real calamity in the last 12 months, the administration has suffered setbacks. But how severe have they been? Two hurricanes struck and many believed that FEMA responded slowly to one of them. Tom DeLay was indicted by a partisan Texas Democrat, District Attorney Ronnie Earle; DeLay's lawyer now has Earle on the run. President Bush made an unfortunate Supreme Court nomination, after which he took a mulligan and made an excellent nomination. An aide to the vice president has been accused of lying to a grand jury about telling the truth to the press about Joe Wilson's lies about the administration. And the president's poll ratings have dropped into a range occupied, at one time or another, by every president from Lyndon Johnson to the present.
Because of these real and imagined setbacks, Republican officeholders are said to be in full retreat. That rumbling sound, audible in the distance, is reputed to be a thundering herd of elephants, fleeing for cover in all directions. And there is some truth to this image. Last week, the administration suffered legislative defeats in both the House and the Senate.
In the House, Republican leaders had to yank their ballyhooed $54 billion budget-cutting bill when it became apparent that their attempted compromise had failed to garner majority support. In a slap at the party's conservative base, the leadership agreed to delete Alaska National Wildlife Refuge oil drilling from the budget resolution, but "moderate" Republicans still failed to support the measure; they weren't willing to go along with even the slight budget cuts incorporated in the resolution.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee was unable to get behind an extension of the president's tax cuts, even for a single year (let alone permanently). The problem was that Sen. Olympia Snowe crossed over to vote with the Democrats, objecting to the measure's cuts in taxes on investments on the ground that they favored the prosperous. But when committee chairman Sen. Charles Grassley offered a version of the package that omitted cuts in capital gains taxes, conservative members of the committee rebelled.
So, for the moment at least, Congressional Republicans are in disarray. But it would be a mistake to overestimate the significance of the current legislative maneuvering. In the House, most if not all, of the Republicans who opposed ANWR drilling last week were voting consistently with their longstanding positions. The reason ANWR oil development has passed the House previously is because 30 Democrats have voted for it. This time, with ANWR drilling incorporated into the budget resolution, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi was able to convince all 30 of these Democrats to vote against the measure. A defeat, to be sure; but ANWR drilling has passed the Senate, and will be on the conference committee's agenda.
Likewise, in the Senate, the extension of Bush's tax cuts almost certainly has enough votes to pass the full chamber, and the Finance Committee may be bypassed via conference committee if the measure passes the House, as it should.
This is not to say that last week's setbacks are insignificant, or that the outcome of the Byzantine congressional process is likely to be fully satisfactory to conservatives. But the wheel is still in spin, and last week's votes had less to do with a collapse in GOP discipline than has been reported. No one ever seriously thought that Olympia Snowe was a reliable vote for the party or the administration.
Moreover, there are signs of a resurgence in the White House. After months of mutely absorbing blows from Democrats who claim that the president misled them about the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Bush responded last Friday with a forceful speech. Better yet, administration surrogates, including Sen. John McCain, have continued to hit back strongly over the past two days. This argument is a winner for the administration--the Democrats' claims are plainly inconsistent with the facts. And, in any event, President Bush's counter-attack will quickly rally the GOP's base to his support.
Most important, there are signs that Bush's decline in the polls has bottomed out. Some of the polls showing precipitously declining support are obviously flawed, to such an extent as to suggest that they were designed to produce that result. Polls that are administered consistently over time are starting to show a significant rebound in the president's standing. In the >Rasmussen Poll, Bush's approval rating hit its nadir in October, but has rebounded steadily since. Currently, it stands at a respectable 46 percent. More important than the number, however, is the trend: There can be little doubt that the administration is on the upswing. In order of importance, at least three factors have brought the party's conservative base, and some other voters, back into the president's camp: his nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court; his counter-attack against the Democrats on Iraq; and the dashing of the Democrats' hopes for Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the Valerie Plame "leak."
That thundering sound in the distance might be a solid phalanx of elephants, on the move once more.
John Hinderaker is a contributing writer to THE DAILY STANDARD and a contributor to the blog Power Line.